Change of heart

After a decade of fighting it, supervisors agree to support Mechoopda’s casino plan

Dennis Ramirez, chairman of the Mechoopda Indian Tribe, says he’s ready to move forward with casino plans held up for over a decade by county lawsuits.

Dennis Ramirez, chairman of the Mechoopda Indian Tribe, says he’s ready to move forward with casino plans held up for over a decade by county lawsuits.

CN&R file photo

In the late 1990s, the Mechoopda Indian Tribe fought to regain federal recognition—and won—in the first step toward building a casino to ensure its financial solvency. At that time, Arlene Ward was tribal chairman, she told the Butte County Board of Supervisors at Tuesday’s meeting (Aug. 14).

“I was in my late 40s when we started this,” she said. “I’m 69 today. This is monumental for me.”

She was referring to the moment the board, historically opposed to the tribe’s plans for a casino near the crossroads of Highways 99 and 149, voted unanimously to send a letter of support to the state Legislature.

“I think it’s a great step for Butte County, that they’re seeing what we’ve been seeing all these years,” Dennis Ramirez, current chairman, told the CN&R by phone after the vote.

He attributes the change of heart to two things: First, and most obvious, was the recent loss in court of an appeal challenging the Mechoopda’s right to the land it plans to build on. (Over a decade of legal fees have cost the county more than $800,000.) Second was the willingness of Supervisor Steve Lambert, whose district includes the casino’s proposed location, to sit down and talk with tribal members about how the project could be mutually beneficial.

“We did decide we wanted to help Butte County,” Ramirez said. Among the county’s biggest fears leading up to this point, as previously reported in this newspaper, was that the tribe’s casino would require county services but would not benefit the county because it would be on federal land and therefore not subject to local sales and other taxes. The tribe is willing to contribute to county coffers, Ramirez said, though the amount has not yet been decided.

“They’ve been forthright in talking with me about their plans and super nice to work with,” Lambert said by phone. “The lawsuit predated me. They won their case; it’s time to move forward in good faith.”

He maintains that he does not believe the location is ideal for a casino, inasmuch as it is currently open land—this could open the door to more development there—and it’s far from existing services such as fire and law enforcement. “But, they’re going to offset that,” he added. “So, we’re ready to work with them to make a nice facility. And then we’ll all get used to it.”

The actual plans for the casino are still in the works, Ramirez said, though the Mechoopda have scaled back significantly from what they originally envisioned—a Vegas-style facility—and will be redesigning with a new architect. A committee will be formed with representatives from the Board of Supervisors and the tribe to hash out a memorandum of understanding.

“I want to thank Butte County for coming to the table and wanting to talk and help us move forward as a tribe,” Ramirez said. “We want to create jobs out there for our tribal members—and the people of Butte County—and we still believe in our self-sufficiency and should be able to take care of our members.”

In other news: The board on Tuesday also voted unanimously to adopt a resolution designating Butte County Jail as a treatment facility. The goal of this is to make up for the lack of beds in state hospitals, where felony inmates who are found incompetent to stand trial currently must go for treatment.

“Unfortunately, inmates often wait 30, 60, 90 days before we can get them into a state bed,” Sheriff Kory Honea told the board. “During that time, they continue to [decline]. The sooner we start treatment, the better it is for the individual, and for our staff.”

The treatment facility designation will allow medical practitioners—contracted through the California Forensic Medical Group—to treat those inmates on-site, Honea explained. This will cost the county nothing, he said, and may even save money currently spent housing inmates while they wait for state beds to be available.